Therapy cat provides inspiration for 5-year-old autistic artist

Nadine Kalinauskas
Daily Buzz
Iris Halmshaw and her cat, Thula.

Five-year-old Iris Grace Halmshaw was diagnosed with autism in 2011. 

Because Iris was nonverbal “most of the time,” Iris’ parents encouraged her to express herself through art instead. 

What they didn’t know then: Iris had remarkable artistic talent. 

“It was on her first painting I noticed a difference in her painting compared with how you would normally expect a child to paint,” Iris’ mom, Arabella Carter-Johnson, wrote to ABC News in an email. “She filled the page with colour but with thought and consideration. … We didn’t think [too] much of it at the time, we were just so happy to have found an activity that brought her so much joy.”

Since she first picked up a paintbrush more than 18 months ago, Iris has sold dozens of her paintings for hundreds of dollars – sometimes even thousands – apiece.

"All profits from the originals go into Iris’s savings account," Carter-Johnson told CNN. “We also sell cards and prints, and the profits from those go towards her speech therapy, occupational therapy, music and yoga.”

Iris’ paintings fund her private therapists, cover the costs of her art supplies and also help fund the Little Explorers Activity Club, a club for autistic children run out of the Halmshaw home. 

“By following Iris’s interests, her ‘spark’, I have been able to engage her in many things,” Carter-Johnson told the Independent.

"We have started our own activity club that supports children with autism, and run that every Saturday morning."

And while art galleries — and even celebrities — continue to show interest in the young artist’s work, Carter-Johnson is careful to not overwhelm Iris. 

“She has a fantastic concentration span but as her parent and educator I have to keep an eye on that and help her move onto other things,” Carter-Johnson told ABC News. “I can see nature in her paintings, water, trees, flowers, and also we can see Thula her cat in many of them.”

Since February, an adopted therapy cat named Thula has been providing the young artist with inspiration – and with the confidence to start communicating verbally. 

Thula’s influence is felt strongly in many of Iris’ paintings, including her Impressionist-style painting “Raining Cats.” 

"Thula’s constant presence and gentle nature is having a remarkable effect upon Iris who is nonverbal most of the time," Carter-Johnson wrote on the website dedicated to Iris’ art.

"I am hearing more words. Iris is giving instructions to Thula. ‘Sit, cat,’ she says when Thula is trying to play on Iris’s iPad. Iris says it with such authority that the kitten obediently sits down with her striped legs neatly together. Unlike most children of Iris’s age, she doesn’t maul, stroke or pick up the kitten constantly. Their relationship is based upon companionship. If Iris wakes during the night, Thula is there to settle her. It’s as though she instinctively knows what to do."

Carter-Johnson wrote that her daughter even began showing more physical affection after Thula entered their lives:

"Ever since we came home with this precious magical kitten, she has been casting a spell over Iris through her faithful companionship, natural affinity and gentle nature. New doorways to communication and emotions are opening and Iris is happier than ever before."

Check out more of Iris’ work here